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Sunday, July 17, 2011     FOR YOUR EYES ONLY

U.S. Afghan policy: Neo-isolationism vs. American exceptionalism

By Arman Saify

The world acknowledges the United States as the most powerful nation on Earth today, militarily and economically. With all its real and imaginary economic woes, it is still the richest nation on Earth and a beacon of liberty and opportunity for all who desire freedom and a fair shot at a decent living.


Above all, it has long considered itself a principled nation. Unfortunately, political myopia has once again blurred our global vision.

As a nation, the United States is cursed by a lack of visionary leadership on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. Our leaders have donned pseudo-ideological shades, worsening an already severe shortsightedness. While they bicker over inane issues, a nation, indeed the world, awaits America’s decisive leadership.

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What the late Spiro Agnew said some four decades ago rings true once again: “In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.” How can we sustain our global leadership if our leaders consistently undermine our national and international responsibilities?

The systematic devastation of Afghanistan over the past 30 years began in the name of progress and was self-inflicted at first. Internal bloodletting ushered in an era of Soviet occupation.

Believing that Islam was the antidote to communism, the U.S. provided training and hardware to the Afghan Mujahedin and convinced the Saudis to underwrite the venture. To maintain a steady stream of cannon fodder, the Saudis financed thousands of madrassas mostly across Pakistan to promote a particularly pernicious brand of Wahabi Islam.

To say that in order to defeat communism the U.S. created Osama Bin Laden may be an oversimplification, but nonetheless true. Once the Soviets fled, the battle hardened Muslim fundamentalists decided to establish a Muslim Emirate. The emergence of the Taliban was only a natural evolution of what we had single-mindedly promoted, without fully considering its consequences.

U.S. policies in Afghanistan — indeed in the entire region — seem to have been scripted in the 1958 book the Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer — a must read for anyone interested in learning from history, particularly our politicians, diplomats and generals. (It is the story of how sheer stupidity on part of our officials and contractors undermines our well-intentioned policies.)

On a recent visit to Kabul, I had the occasion to meet with some of the top political operatives and decision makers. By and large, they are well-educated, open-minded, progressive professionals, focused on their work and dedicated to helping rebuild their nation. But they face a herculean task and cannot do it alone.

The world helped ruin what there was of Afghanistan. The world has a duty to help Afghans re-build. But there is a difference between helping Afghans rebuilt and half-hearted attempt at nation-building – a wrong-headed, utterly futile enterprise born of the failure to understand the history and the culture of the people.

Normally, occupying powers have a tendency to prolong their occupation, while conversely, the occupied want to get rid of them as quickly as possible. In this case, the Afghan literati representing the people at large want the U.S. to stay to help complete an incomplete task, while our otherwise seemingly sane politicians from the left and the right, not heeding the counsel of our military leaders, are clamoring to get us out prematurely, without thinking about the global consequences.

Has the Vietnam syndrome become a chronic disease? Our election-centric administration is equally complicit in this depravity. It actually believes it can shed America’s responsibility by merely announcing that the Afghan government and the Afghan National Army are ready to take over.

History is not blind. Withdrawal at this stage only means retreat, and history will record that a few thousand irregular Taliban fighters forced the retreat of 100,000 strong U.S. Armed Forces. Were the supreme sacrifice of over 1,200 brave soldiers and expenditure of several hundreds of billions of dollars for naught?

Did it occur to anyone in our government to ask the Afghans for their opinion? Probably not, because most of our emissaries to Kabul, special envoys included, were the types who liked to dictate rather than engage in meaningful dialogue.

The last U.S. ambassador to Kabul is said to have had a running feud with the Afghan President for the past two years. Yes, America’s top diplomat in Kabul seems to have been less than diplomatic. Why keep an ambassador in such a strategically important post after he had proven time and again that he was a detriment to the promotion of U.S. interests? It is utterly incomprehensible why we let him stay in this sensitive post at this very crucial time when it was all too obvious that he could not carry out his duties as required.

The following quote from a very distinguished Afghan leader elucidates my point: “Over our entire history, many nations invaded Afghanistan, raped, pillaged and left. The only people that actually came to Afghanistan to help us rebuild are the Americans. They are our best allies. We must cooperate with them fully, not undermine them.”

This pure sentiment is our greatest accomplishment, but both our media as well as our leaders have failed to grasp it because it is meaningful and profound. It was lost in the din created by the cacophony of pontificators, the so-called specialists and talking heads, ill-informed representatives and senators.

The quote ends with “We will be able to stand on our own providing the perception of U.S. support continues. But recent U.S. pronouncements about deadlines for withdrawal of the military undermine what has been accomplished at a great human and financial sacrifice. Why can’t the Americans keep their own global interests separate from their domestic politics?”

Afghanistan is of great geopolitical importance to our global interests. It should and can become our outpost in Central Asia and the Middle East. It is also of great economic significance, given the vast mineral resources uncovered by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Events in Afghanistan will have far reaching implications for the stability of Central Asia and the Middle East, and direct consequences for U.S. interests in Eurasia. It is time our Congressional leaders placed U.S. national interests before their own domestic agenda.

Arman Saify is a media consultant who has followed Middle Eastern and Central Asian politics for over 30 years. He lives in Northern Virginia and has worked in many capacities including Iran Analyst for USCENTCOM and global reports editor for USSTRATCOM.

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